Positive School Climate is Crucial to Educational Success, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Tells First Circuit in Foote v. Ludlow School Committee Amicus Brief

GLAD represents the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) in a friend-of-the-court brief filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Foote v. Ludlow School Committee.

The brief presents research about the importance of providing a supportive school environment to improve educational outcomes. It highlights the role of students’ trusted relationships with and support from teachers and school staff in academic achievement and performance.  It also argues that courts should continue the wide berth accorded to educators about how to teach and support student learning rather than create a new constitutional rule requiring schools to disregard student rights and to report on student conversations.

In the case, parents challenged actions taken by teachers and staff at a Ludlow school to support the well-being of two students, including using the students’ requested names and pronouns and waiting to share that information with the parents until the students themselves were ready to do so or finished doing so. The District Court dismissed the case, concluding that the plaintiffs did not present adequate specific facts supporting a legal claim that the school’s actions were a violation of their rights as parents.

“To be sure, parents have rights to be involved in their children’s educations. Schools also have to respect nondiscrimination laws and students’ privacy and confidentiality rights,” said Mike Long, General Counsel to MASS. “When schools maintain a welcoming environment with positive relationships between students and their teachers and other educators, and also encourage young people to bring their families into important parts of their lives, we respect the concerns of everyone and maintain the trust and safety that are so critical to the learning environment.”

The MASS brief supports the District Court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs failed to raise specific and plausible factual details to support their claimed legal theories and urges the First Circuit to uphold the lower court’s dismissal. The brief also cites substantial research supporting the actions taken by school staff, including waiting to discuss students’ gender expression at school with parents until the students themselves were ready to do so (and the complaint acknowledges that one was in the process of doing so), as squarely within the purview of educators and other school personnel to create an effective learning environment.

“A robust body of research shows that positive school climate programs and practices, including trusted relationships with adults, is critical to academic success for all students,” said Mary Bonauto, Senior Director of Civil Rights and Legal Strategies at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). “Courts give a wide berth to school officials to manage school functioning and learning even when parents disagree about aspects of that management. When teachers and other educators acknowledge and respect students including their requested names and pronouns, that creates the safety that allows brain development and learning to flourish while also meeting the requirement of equal educational opportunity. Parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, but parents and students have navigated these and other issues before without a new constitutional mandate of disclosure and can do so today.”

“Supporting students sometimes means empowering them to share important parts of themselves with their families on their own terms,” said Chris Erchull, GLAD Attorney. “Who among us has not needed time and support at times before sharing something deeply important and personal with those we love?”

Excerpts from the brief are as follows:

[S]uperintendents and school administration, teachers, and staff seek to ensure that students are safe, supported, protected, and can learn what they need to succeed. Schools center students. They talk with students who reach out to them and they seek never to convey an unwillingness to engage with students and their concerns. This is, of course, a matter of decency and respect to the students and their families; it is also central to the educational mission. Amici know how bounded, caring, respectful relationships between students and teachers and other educators are fundamental to positive school environments and benefit students academically, socially, and emotionally. Parents and schools are natural partners in supporting young people at school. However, as much as parents have rights to be involved in their child’s education, that is different from rigid requirements to disclose to parents matters about which the student is not yet ready to discuss at home…. Such a requirement would also be difficult to cabin, and would likely eviscerate the student’s sense of belonging at school, thus cutting at the heart of positive school climate efforts and the success that follows. (page 21-22)

Trusting relationships between teachers, and educators, and students are foundational to positive school climate. Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that positive school climate contributes to better academic and individual wellbeing outcomes for all students…(page 10-11)

Decisions about how to create a positive school climate for engaged learning, academic achievement, and academic performance belong with schools, including making sure adults can talk with students and are able to support students when they seek assistance. These matters are squarely within educator expertise. As this Court recently observed, “the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the necessary discretion school officials must exercise and the attendant deference owed to many of their decisions.” Norris v. Cape Elizabeth Sch. Dist., 969 F.3d 12, 29 (1st Cir. 2020). To be sure, courts must “interpret and apply the law,” but not “substitute [their] own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which [they] review.” Albright v. Mt. Home School District, 926 F.3d 942, 948 (8th Cir. 2019)….  [This goes to] furtherance of “the legitimate pedagogical purpose of fostering an educational environment” where all students, including LGBTQ students, can thrive. (page 35-36)